Monthly Archives: November 2010

Grant Writing from Recession to Recession: This is a Great Time to Start a New Nonprofit

I received a phone call last week from a woman (let’s call her “Mrs. Smith”) who just started a tiny new nonprofit in South Central LA during this never-ending recession. She wants to help the growing number of homeless youth and unemployed young adults hanging out on the streets. Mrs. Smith’s call reminded me of how Seliger + Associates got started and the many Mrs. Smiths we’ve worked for over the past 17 years.

During the almost-forgotten recession of the early 1990s, I was toiling in the local government fields as the Community Development Director for the City of San Ramon. To paraphrase Mister Roberts, San Ramon was located somewhere between Tedium and Apathy in Contra Costa County. The recession cut city revenues drastically, and because I was not particularly loved by the City Manager or City Council, one day the ax just fell (“Tangled Up in Blue,” B Dylan). I joined the swelling ranks of the unemployed.

This happened in late 1992, and I had a few months of severance pay to more or less keep the wolves at the door and not in the house. By March, the idea of Seliger + Associates had formed; through some initial connections, incredibly hard work, and luck we began to get clients. The early 1990s was, of course, long before the Internet and email. To get clients, we bombed nonprofits in LA with cheesy direct mail flyers, and once or twice a week I flew down to meet with any nonprofit executive director who called. I spent a lot of time in churches, living rooms, drug treatment centers, half-way houses, and the like, mostly in South Central and East LA, pitching our services for very modest fees.

Our first clients more or less fell into two categories. The first were fairly large United Way-type agencies that seemed amused at the concept of an itinerant grant writer parachuting in every week from the wilds of Northern California. The second category were tiny start-ups, like Mrs. Smith, trying to get grants to help people around them who were being devastated by the recession. As I’ve blogged about many times in the last two years, tough times are good times for grant writers because lots of grant funds are available and lots of organizations need to replace falling donations.

Tough times are also good times for new and nimble organizations that address local challenges. Like Mrs. Smith, such newly minted nonprofits, provided they have taken the time to get their 501(c)(3) letter, can compete successfully against their larger, more bureaucratic brethren. This is because small, new nonprofits are not paralyzed by hand-wringing over drops in donations and lowered United Way grants while simultaneously trying to avoid staff lay-offs. About a year ago, Jake wrote about this phenomenon in “When It Comes To Applying for Grants, Size Doesn’t Matter (Usually).” Such nonprofit start-ups (perhaps “upstarts” is a better characterization) helped us start our business.

In the early years, we wrote tons of funded proposals for such organizations—often LA City or County grants—enabling them to take contracts from ossified nonprofits that had been around since the Watts rebellion. It helped that I was then willing to drive all around the dicier parts of LA to get work. But our small fish clients also saw their neighborhoods being devastated and had an intense desire to do something. Then, as now, doing something at any sort of scale requires grants and someone to write the grants. We appeared at the right time with the right skills. We’re still here and a new recession is growing a new crop of small nonprofits, whose executive directors are calling us for help.

Today, Americans are mired in much worse economic times than when our business started. I just Googled the LA unemployment rate in September 1993, which was 9.8%—compared to 12.5% in September 2010! I could do the same with pretty much any part of the country. I’m writing a proposal this weekend for a client in Yuma, AZ, where the current unemployment rate is 27.2%, which is Grapes of Wrath / Tom Joad territory. It is not surprising that Mrs. Smith called looking for grants to kick-start her efforts to help youth falling through the safety net.

She may or may not hire us, but we’re working for lots of similar organizations once again, as the recession provides opportunities for new nonprofits to emerge to meet emerging needs (whew: this sounds like a proposal sentence). Other kinds of startups have also discovered this. We find ourselves where we started, and to quote the Grateful Dead in Truckin’: What a long strange trip it’s been.

November Links: Healthcare Machinations, Becoming a Writer, Why Your High School Probably “Sucked” Statistically, Demography, Government Pulls in Three Directions (again), the Native American CDFI Assistance Program, and More!

* What makes our healthcare so expensive? Hint: the answer is not simple or obvious. If you hear people say, “It’s x, and chiefly x,” where x might be greedy insurance companies, clueless consumers, the market, regulation, government, greedy doctors, or any noun preceded by the word “greedy,”

* The dangers of Groupon and of discounts in general: “We’ve also learned that the customers you attract only with a discount will disregard what you love about your own business, and won’t treat you with respect; both sides usually regret the transaction.”

* Statistically speaking, my high school sucked. Yours probably did too—you just don’t know it. You should pay attention to this if you write education proposals. See also Your Child Left Behind.

* Global aging: the problem the world faces, it turns out, is not overpopulation, but underpopulation.

* Why New Novelists Are Kinda Old, or, Hey, Publishing is Slow.

* People in polls are lunatics on the budget; they consistently oppose tax increases, oppose spending cuts, and strongly support balancing the budget.

* That’s what life’s about: improving the world around you.

* Your government at work!: When sales of Domino’s Pizza were lagging, a government agency stepped in with advice: more cheese. This is the same government that, for health reasons, is advising less cheese.

* Americans look like Americans wherever we are.

* Guess who is lobbying against marijuana legalization? Yup, beer distributors and the police. Call this another example of people whose job involve fighting a social problem fighting to maintain that social “problem.”

* Why NPR matters.

* This “obscure provision” in the health care bill is completely vital to our business and yet isn’t particularly well-known among people in general. It should be. See this story on the coming 1099 mess.

* The world is richer and healthier than it used to be.

* Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project for gay teenagers already has 200,000 hits for a very good reason: it’s quite moving because it’s unexpectedly earnest, which feels unexpected honest in a media age filled with bullshit. Consider it recommended; see the impetus for it in this column.

See Megan McArdle’s take here.

* One of the funniest sentences I’ve read in a while: “Sarah Palin on the Federal Reserve is one of those immortal phrases, like Lindsay Lohan stars in Anna Karenina, or La Boheme featuring Justin Bieber, a magical, irresistible blend of high and low that might just make mainstream Americans care about monetary policy.”

* Why the U.S. needs a new visa for foreigners who want to start businesses here.

* The Native American CDFI Assistance Program is out, with $12M and a deadline of Dec. 22.

* Scary thoughts that I think are right, from Tyler Cowen.

* Marriage in crisis, or what the recession is doing to marriage, with data stratified by education.

* Dear 22 Year Old: Concerning your Future. And there’s probably no way to stop it, save voting en masse for a political party that doesn’t exist and can’t exist given electoral realities.

* James Fallows, who, if you’re not reading his blog, you should be:

Among the many things wrong with talking-head gab shows, which have proliferated/ metastasized in the past generation — they’re cheap to produce, they fill air time, they make journalists into celebrities, they suit the increasing political niche-ization of cable networks — is that they reward an affect of breezy confidence on all topics and penalize admissions of complexity, of ignorance on a specific topic, or of the need for time to think.

Politics and Proposals Don’t Mix: Your Politics (or Your Organization’s) Shouldn’t Matter in Grant Writing, and Neither Should Elections

Ed Nelson asks, “Do conservative non-profits get grants or are federal grants such an anathema to them, [and] they choose not to apply?” I want to answer, but the question itself feels wrong because politics shouldn’t be an issue in human service delivery. Politics and political views matter in Congress, which decides what kinds of programs to fund, and can matter in federal rule making that ultimately leads to RFPs being issued, but by the time an RFP is issued, political questions have been resolved and implementation is everything.*

So “conservative” nonprofits are just as likely to get grants as “liberal” ones, but even if your organization has a political bent among your staff, you shouldn’t put that in the proposal. Besides, I’m not sure there’s a “conservative” or “liberal” way, for example, to provide construction skills and academic training (YouthBuild) or to repair low-income housing to fix safety hazards (Healthy Homes)—to name two programs we’ve worked on recently. Both programs are designed to be fairly narrow: you conduct outreach, you do an intake assessment, you select participants, you do things to/with participants, and they come out over the other end better. There isn’t a lot of room for politics.

Even in programs where you can talk about divisive political issues, you’re often better off taking pains not to. For example, we work for a large number of Community Health Clinics (CHCs), as well as organizations that provide various kinds of sex or abstinence education (one such RFP inspired this post on proposal research). We never ask about our clients’ views on one of the most divisive political issues in America because their views don’t matter for proposals. In fact, I’m taking pains to avoid that word starting with “a,” lest the comments section turn into a flamewar. You’ve heard the word before, it has talismanic properties among both left and right, and we never use it in proposals. Neither should you. You don’t know who’s going to read the proposal, their political leanings, or how your implied politics might affect your score. We’ve also never seen an application that specifically addresses the procedure in question.

In addition, nonprofits, especially the 501(c)3s we most often work for, aren’t supposed to engage in lobbying or other overtly political behaviors. If you’re with a nonprofit, you’re supposed to be helping people and/or achieving your charitable purpose. So you should concentrate on that in your proposal.

One other observation about politics and proposals: you should also avoid assuming that the nonprofit apocalypse is upon us or nonprofit salvation is nigh due to a particular election.

Isaac likes to point out that he got out of the grant writing game in the early 1980s partially because he was tired of it at the time and partially because he thought Reagan would kill too many discretionary grant programs. The latter, it turns out, was not only wrong, but hilariously wrong, and when he started Seliger + Associates in 1993, the most astonishing thing was how little grant writing had changed from the 1970s to the 1990s—and this trend continues to the present.

In the decade and change I’ve been paying attentions to grants and grant writing, I’ve heard a great deal of teeth gnashing about politics, but every week I compile the Seliger Funding Report and find the federal government, as well as states and foundations, have issued RFPs for new and existing discretionary grant programs regardless of the party in power or the divisions in government. Whatever the disagreements between the major political parties in the United States, both love discretionary grant programs, which persist across decades of political oscillation.**

Lots of people with passionate political feelings and views write blogs expressing those views, inflict them on friends and family, and post snarky Facebook updates about candidates and election results. Those are lovely, appropriate forums for such sentiments. Your grant application is not. Whether you’re to the right of Attila the Hun or to the left of Marx (Karl, not Groucho), leave those opinions out of your proposal.


* And implementation is, or should be, non-partisan.

** Note too Isaac’s post, “Reformers Come and Go, But HUD Abides,” which is essentially about the tendency of federal agencies and program to persist over time.

Talent Search RFP Finally Published — But What A Stupid Deadline

Last Sunday I posed the question, “Searching for Talent Search: Where Oh Where Has the Talent Search RFP Gone And Why is It A Secret?.” I still don’t know why the RFP release date was a secret, but on Wednesday, the Department of Education finally published the Talent Search application instructions. Hallelujah, or as my now 24 year old son used to say at about age five, “Hallalulah!”

One minor problem: The deadline is December 28, dead center between Christmas and New Years Day. I wonder why the Department of Education would pick such a dumb deadline. A quick check of the calendar reveals that Christmas and New Years Day fall on Saturdays. Anybody who has worked for a public agency will know that almost all Talent Search employees will, at a minimum, take off December 24 and 31, and most will be on vacation from December 24 through at least January 3. Most folks want to combine vacation days with holidays and quasi-holidays to stretch out their time off.

Thus, there will be no one home to look at proposals submitted on December 28. Likely, because of the hullabaloo in D.C. with the start of the new Congress on January 3 and MLK day on January 17 (another opportunity to stretch a three day weekend into ten days off), not much will likely happen with Talent Search applications until at least the third week in January.

So why make Talent Search applicants work right through Christmas? The Talent Search team is either venal or just plain stupid. As Forrest Gump observed, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

You be the judge. Of course, if you really want to have a Happy Holiday, let us slave over your hot Talent Search proposal and you can hit those day after Xmas sales to do your part to bring the economy back.

Searching for Talent Search: Where Oh Where Has the Talent Search RFP Gone And Why is It A Secret?

UPDATE: Talent Search has finally appeared, and the RFP vindicates much of what Isaac wrote below.

Having been in business for over 17 years, Seliger + Associates has lots of spies. Well, not spies exactly, but clients, former and current, program officers and assorted grant cognoscenti who send us interesting nuggets. Recently, one made it into “Be Nice to Your Program Officer: Reprogrammed / Unobligated Federal Funds Mean Christmas May Come Early and Often This Year” about the anticipated release of the Talent Search RFP.

A client for whom we wrote a funded proposal for a different TRIO program let us know that the “Draft Talent Search Application” was hiding in plain sight at Bulletin Board of an organization called the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE). Even though I’ve been writing TRIO proposals since the early days of the Clinton administration, I’d never heard of COE, which turns out to be more or less a trade group for TRIO grantees and wannabes. Our client hangs out at COE gatherings and told us about the draft Talent Search RFP, since we’re going to write the proposal for her nonprofit. I din’t bother reading the draft RFP because only the final published document matters.

What was intriguing, however, was that the draft Talent Search Application indicated that the real RFP would be issued on October 22. Astute readers might realize that it’s now Halloween. So what happened?

To investigate on behalf of our client and curious Grant Writing Confidential readers, I sent an e-mail to Julia Tower, the contact person listed on the COE website for Talent Search, on October 23. The draft documents were apparently kicked over to COE by the Department of Education, much like YouthBuild stuff is often kicked over to YouthBuild USA by the Department of Labor. Anyway, my e-mail to Julia went out on October 23 and asked innocently (I know it’s hard to believe, but I can be sweet at times) if she knew when the Talent Search RFP would actually be published and if she knew the reason for delay (I can guess the reason, which I reveal below—wait for it—but wanted to back check with somebody actually “in the know”).

Julia sent me a reply, typos and all, that said: “The ED source for all TS info- regs were published- draft appl for grants available on web site eventually- & at ED free wkshops now.” I love “free wkshops” as much as the next guy, but I replied by reiterating my query because Grant Writing Confidential readers presumably want to know if she knows when the RFP will be published.

Julia again ignored my pointed questions and replied, again with typos, “Is your company an institutuional member of coe?” I wrote back:

We are not COE members, but why does this matter?

As bloggers, we sometimes act as journalists. You may wish treat my inquiry the same as if it were coming from a NYT, WP or WSJ reporter, since it is possible I may use this exchange in a blog post. Are the questions I’m asking proprietary in any way or is it not public information? If it is not public information, why is it a secret? A “no comment” or decline to comment might strike our readers, who number in the thousands, as evasive.

FYI, as a grant writer, I can assure you that a draft application and workshops are useless. What matters is the published RFP and the deadline. If I write the post, I’ll explain why.

Since then, I haven’t heard from Julia or anyone else at COE, and, as of this writing, the Department of Education still hasn’t published the Talent Search RFP. Since they have now missed the publication date by at least 10 days and are supposed to provide applicants at least 45 days to respond, the proposed proposal submission deadline of December 9 will also probably be stretched out by at least 10 days, putting it around December 20. Oops, that’s a bit close to Christmas, which might push the deadline into January and smack into the FY 2011 budget hurricane that was the subject of my original post. Funny how grant writing things that come around, go around.

Note to Julia—a draft application and pre-application workshops are fairly useless from a grant writer’s perspective because the only document that really matters is the RFP/application as published in the Federal Register and/or grants.gov. The rest is merely speculation and isn’t binding. I also can’t imagine why the Department of Education flies Program Officers all around the country for these workshops, which could easily be presented on the web as podcasts or what have you. It seems the TRIO office at the Department of Education is firmly cemented in the last century.*

Now, for my guess regarding the delay: It is probably a result of the giant backlog at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The OMB has to approve all RFPs, regulations and other federal announcements prior publication. With the current avalanche of RFPs, as well health care reform and Wall Street reform rule making going on, I suspect the boys and girls at the OMB are probably a wee bit behind. In addition to Talent Search, we’re also waiting for HRSA to issue their FOA (Funding Opportunity Announcement, which is HRSA-speak for RFP) for the Expanded Medical Capacity (EMC) program. Another our spies said the EMC FOA is hung up at the OMB, and I suspect it’s probably sitting on top of the Talent Search RFP on some GS-11’s desk.


* In the early days of our business, I actually sometimes went to RFP workshops, but not to listen to the blather and giggling of the Program Officers (go to any such workshop and the presenter will eventually giggle when confronted with an uncomfortable question). I went to market our services, wearing a Seliger + Associates “WE KNOW WHERE THE MONEY IS” t-shirt and passing out marketing flyers.

This typically drove the Program Officers over the edge. I was actually almost arrested at a Department of Education TRIO workshop on the campus of Seattle Community College around 1995. When the Program Officer figured out what I was doing, she called campus security. The President of the College promptly showed up with an officer or two in tow and demanded to know what I was doing. I said I’m simply drumming up business and exercising my free speech rights. He huffed and puffed and left me to pass out flyers and chat-up the attendees.